As Senior Trooper Greg Love guided his four-wheel-drive Chevy pickup along China Hat Road southeast of Bend, eight deer bounded across the road in front of the vehicle.
Love slowed the truck to a stop, the dark bodies of the deer standing out against the white frozen fog that clung to the landscape of ponderosa pines and sagebrush.
“That shows just how vulnerable the deer are this time of year,” said Love, whose primary job as a fish and wildlife officer for the Oregon State Police is to protect those deer and other big game.
In the back of the truck sat “Bob,” a wildlife enforcement decoy used to nab poachers.
During the winter, many deer in Central Oregon move from higher elevations to their winter ranges closer to towns. Love and other personnel with the OSP’s Fish and Wildlife Division spend much of their time looking for poachers who try to kill these deer out of season, and enforcing vehicle road closures that protect wintering game.
On Monday, Love, who patrols out of the OSP’s Bend office, and Senior Trooper Mark Prodzinski, from the OSP’s Madras office, were running a decoy operation on China Hat Road. According to Love, the area is well-known as a recreation area for hikers and for shooters engaging in target practice, but also for criminal activities such as poaching, drug use, vehicle arson, car thefts and dumping of trash.
“We use the decoy to address problem areas,” Love said. “We’ve had a lot of winter kills of deer in this area.”
Love set up Bob — made with a foam interior covered by a real hide, with 4-point antlers from an illegally shot deer affixed — into the dirt in a clearing just a few feet off China Hat Road.
Love then crossed the road on foot and took a position behind a tree from where he could see the decoy and any vehicles that might stop. Prodzinski waited nearby in his truck, prepared to confront any offenders. The two troopers remained in constant radio contact.
Over the course of about two hours, Bob was passed by numerous cars, most of whose occupants apparently did not notice the buck. Four cars, however, stopped to take a closer look.
At one point, the fake buck’s antlers shining in the sun, two cars stopped and a young man and woman got out of their car to talk to the other driver.
“You see how big he was?” the man asked. “I don’t think he’s real. I think it’s ODFW.”
At that point, Prodzinski drove up to tell the curious drivers they were right and to move along.
Though not part of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, troopers like Love and Prodzinski work closely with the ODFW.
Once a year Oregon State Police personnel sit down with ODFW biologists as part of the state’s Cooperative Enforcement Program, assigning priorities to each month to direct fish and wildlife troopers on a broad scale. During a summer month the focus might be high lakes fishing, and another month could be sage grouse protection.
This month, the priority is protection of big game on its winter range. And Love is a busy man.
“We have more violations per capita than any other division in the state,” Love noted. “There’s a huge amount of public land in Central Oregon. They can go out anywhere and poach. That’s why tips are so important.”
The Turn In Poachers program, or TIP (1-800-452-7888), is run by the Oregon Hunter’s Association (OHA).
Love said the state police receive considerable support from the OHA, the Mule Deer Foundation, and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.
“When somebody calls and says they heard something or saw something, that gets us in the right direction,” Love said.
Love and other troopers also spend time during the winter following up investigations from big-game seasons in the fall, gathering information and writing search warrants. Sometimes they do not make an arrest until six months after the crime.
“We are patrol and detectives,” Love said.
All fish and wildlife offenses are Class A misdemeanors, with maximum penalties of a $6,250 fine or one year in jail. For an offense in which there was no intent to commit a crime, Love said, troopers can treat the offense as a violation and issue a citation of $75 to $299.
Love said the most common violations involving big game include licensing issues, improper tags, shooting from the road, hunting at night, and hunting during closed season.
While Love spends the majority of his time trying to catch poachers, he also enforces road closures that protect big game in the winter.
On Monday he drove the dirt roads near Tumalo Reservoir northwest of Bend, looking for tire tracks. The area is part of the Tumalo winter range closure. Several other areas in Central Oregon are also closed to motorized vehicles during the winter months. (Contact a local ODFW office for information on road closures.)
“We try to reduce vehicle/animal interaction in those areas,” Love explained. “It’s real important for the health of the herd. We don’t give a lot of warnings. Those animals need some rest.”
Monday was a fairly uneventful day for Love, but who knows what the next day could bring? He said he has never had to fire his gun while on the job, but a drunk driver did try to run him over with a truck once.
“I don’t know what I’m going to get into when I leave the house,” Love said. “You just never know.”